Combat sims on the high seas are few and far between these days. While there are some exceptional watery war-games, sadly Naval War: Arctic Circle is not counted among them. It sails into your hardrive on the USS Mediocrity, and at the helm is Captain Patches McNeeded.
In-game menus are easily navigated and efficient. Getting into the action is quick. Nothing fancy here, but it gets the job done, which is really all I want.
When I first loaded up the game, I went straight into the tutorials, which is a habit of mine with unfamiliar games. I went through almost all of them. Then I started the single player campaign, where the game forced me to play them again! This time there were “talking heads” and a story. Frustrating.
A fair warning, or even a “We see you played the tutorial, want to skip it this time?” would have been nice.
The map. Everything is controlled from here.
Story elements are humorous. They are more “tongue-in-cheek” than “impending-epic-war.” It’s a strange divergence, since the game seems to be taking a serious tone with its imagery and sim style of game-play, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
Most of the time in-game, will be spent staring at a simple map of the arctic circle. Here you find the northern coasts of Europe, where most of the levels play out. Game controls and the UI are understandable, and logically arranged. That’s important since the game is almost completely controlled by the mouse.
Each scenario supplies you with a set amount of military resources. You won’t be mining or capturing points to buy “super units.” Instead you are required to use what you have wisely. Some units have special abilities, such as the radar planes with advanced sensors, or the helicopters sub detecting sonar-buoys. Each unit has a clear-cut role; air superiority jets are armed with anti-air missiles, and submarines specialize in sinking ships and other subs. Knowing what to do with the units is the key to success.
Now’s a good time to find the life boats.
Engaging an enemy is as simple as right clicking on them. You can tell a unit to use a specific weapon, but they are set to select the optimal choice by default. This makes it pretty easy to take down a target. The same goes for moving a unit, or telling it where to use a special ability. Management of aircraft carriers and airbases is equally simple.
Some of the command options are unnecessarily complicated. For example, I had to tell my jets to engage all targets of opportunity marked as “foe.” Since every scenario involves shooting up a “foe” of some sort, it would have been nice if units were set to engage said “foe” by default. Instead I was forced to select the units and do it manually, including each new unit summoned from carriers or bases.
Also, having to tell the units what elevation to maintain seemed unnecessary. While it’s nice to have so much control, I would prefer to just have an option for “automatic optimized speed and altitude.” Even after setting my raptors to “engage on sight,” they still occasionally ignored an enemy that was within range of their anti-air missiles, forcing me to babysit them.
Some of this micro-management makes the game feel burdensome. It’s like being the manager of a Pizza Hut, and having to constantly call the delivery guys, telling them what speed to drive and what streets to take.
The “Eye in the Sky” scans the area for hostiles.
Battles, being “to-scale,” can be large. Ships fire tomahawks, subs stalk their prey, and jets vie for control of air-space. There is something to be said about the delight in victory, especially given some of the more complicated scenarios, where losing one specific unit can ruin your chances of winning.
This brings me to a big problem I have with the game.
You had better set aside enough time to play an entire battle, as there is no save feature during missions. This lends to additional frustration, especially since the game happened to crash on me twice. Granted, battles tend to last for about thirty to forty-five minutes, and the game can be paused, but that’s certainly no excuse to leave out such a fundamental feature.
It’s like building a car with no turn signals, a boat with no life preservers, or a DVD player with no “fast forward.” Sure, they all work without it, but why omit such key elements? One could argue “to make the game more hardcore.” That’s fine, but not when the game is in a state where it crashes on occasion.
Injured, but still in the fight. Here comes pay-back.
Most of the unit models look pretty nice, especially some of the larger planes, cruisers, and warships. Others, like the aircraft carrier, seem to have low quality textures. Overall, vehicles are detailed.
Effects such as dense missile trails and oily smoke plumes also look great. Firing a mass volley of cruise missiles is satisfying.
Ocean textures are also believable. Reflections of ships, smoke and the setting sun bring it to life.
However, the more earthy areas are excruciatingly simple. Poky mountains, featureless landscapes, and repeating textures seem out of place next to the improved ocean effects and vehicles. Sky textures are great when conditions are good, yet they tile oddly on cloudy days. Also, the “water drops on the lens” camera effect looks more like a disturbance in space-time, or a spilled lava-lamp sprawling across your screen.
It’s a shame because the action is marred by this jumbled backdrop.
Mountains, or a monument to Laura Croft? You decide.
Unit animations are also hit or miss. Jets simply spawn above their bases or aircraft carriers. There are no animations for taxiing down runways, or landing on them.
One time, seven or eight cruise missiles bunched-up into what I christened “The Missile Bouquet.”
On another occasion, I fired a mass volley of about six missiles at an enemy jet. I followed the missile behind the first set, with the camera. After the target was destroyed, the missile I was watching simply became suspended in the air. It seemed confused, like “Eh… that thing you wanted shot? Yeah it’s gone.” Then suddenly, my missile disappeared.
While vehicles look okay, the least amount of work was done on the environment, which is “unpolished.” Meanwhile, strange animation issues are more like “unfinished.”
“Uh, sir? I believe I am in Minecraft. Over.”
Sound & Music:
Missiles swish through the air, jets roar, and boats motor along. Explosions boom, and fire crackles. The sound effects work well, and are one of the better aspects of the game. When the action is on, it comes together well.
Music, however, comes in the form of two songs: one for the menu, the other for the game. It’s a simple unending looped tune, hammered out on a synthesizer in what probably took all of fifteen minutes. It does little to add to the game. In fact, the game is better without the music altogether. I turned it off.
The Bottom Line:
Sinking your enemy, blowing him out of the sky, or shutting down an incoming missile barrage is fun. Succeeding in your mission is rewarding. Vehicles look great, for the most part, while the environment is muddled. Missiles can hang in the air, and graphical glitches are commonplace. Leaving out a save feature is a bewildering choice, given the potential length of some missions and stability issues. Sound works well for the action, but music is just bad.
It’s not a horrible game. It’s just a game that still needs a lot of work. So unless you’re really jonesing for that Naval war sim, or feel compelled to play every strategy game, you may want to lift anchor and sail on.